Associate Professor Karen Charlton (Australia)

Position: Associate Professor

Affiliation: School of Medicine, University of Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia

  • What is your role at your work?

I am an academic who is responsible for teaching Public Health and Community Nutrition within the Nutrition and Dietetics programme at the University of Wollongong, Australia. Between 2008 and 2013, I was responsible for teaching the epidemiology curriculum within the undergraduate (BPubHealth) and postgraduate (MPH) public health programmes at UOW.

Before that I held research positions at the Medical Research Council in South Africa (2002-2006) and headed the Division of Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Cape Town (1999-2002) where the country’s only postgraduate Honours programme that led to state-registration as a dietitian was offered.

I am an accredited practising dietitian, hold two Masters degrees (Health Sciences; Epidemiology) and a PhD, obtained in 2006. I have been actively been involved in research for 25 years after beginning my career in 1990 as a dietitian in the National Health Service, UK.

I am committed to teaching students to become competent and ethical practitioners in improving the health of populations through nutritional interventions, programmes and policy. It gives me great pleasure to see our graduates develop exciting and innovative solutions to match the challenges at hand.

Since moving to Australia in 2006, Karen remains committed to training
African students to address public health issues on the continent.


  • How did you get interested in your career path?

I have always been interested in how public health nutrition has application for translation into practice and policy, particularly with regard to prevention and management of hypertension.

My early research interest focused on the association between diet and physical and cognitive health in older adults in developing countries. What became obvious was that the very high prevalence of hypertension in South Africans, accompanied by poor clinical management thereof, necessitated a population health approach.

My doctoral work identified salt intake levels and key food sources that could be targeted for salt reduction. I worked with the food industry to develop lower salt variants of commonly consumed foods, and tested the products in a randomised clinical trial of hypertensive adults.  A Medical Research Council Policy Brief in 2007 communicated our work and advocated for population-level strategies to lower blood pressure.

After relocating to Australia in 2006, where mild iodine deficiency was a public health issue (salt is not required to be iodised by law), I moved my attention to the policy implications of simultaneous salt iodisation and salt reduction, and was an invited speaker at the World Health Organization (WHO) Technical Meeting on Salt Reduction & Iodine Fortification Strategies (March 2013), and at the Micronutrient Forum meeting, Ethiopia (June 2014).

More recently, I have focused on how different dietary patterns impact on blood pressure regulation and our group has conducted a meta-analysis on this topic. The role of fruit flavonoids (anthocyanins) on blood pressure and cognitive function in older adults has become another current area of my research.

I have been fortunate to be involved in policy related activities in both Australia and South Africa, with regard to synthesizing evidence for revision of Dietary Guidelines in both countries on salt. I am currently a member of the Australian NHMRC Expert Working Group for revision of the Nutrient Reference Value for iodine.

  • What are you most proud of in your career or otherwise?

Having had the chance to serve on a few nutrition policy working groups (Obesity prevention; Food Based Dietary guidelines) in the early 2000s, I realised that evidence was essential in order to change clinical practice and influence nutrition policy.

I embarked on a PhD rather late in my career, and graduated in 2006, aged 39. One of my most proud achievements is that my PhD work on strategies to lower blood pressure formed the basis of evidence that encouraged the South African government to be the first country globally to adopt mandatory legislation to limit the salt levels in many processed foods. The policy will come into effect June 2016 and it is estimated that it will result in 20% fewer deaths attributed to high BP per year.

  • What important career challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?

Having a family and doing a PhD at the same time, whilst holding down a full time job! I am still probably not very good at time management and often wake up in the middle of the night to work on an interesting research paper.

I took on a leadership role probably before I was ready for it in 1999, aged 32 years old, and this involved intense managerial responsibilities and the need to fundraise to pay for most of the staff in the University unit. I rapidly had to sharpen my negotiation and advocacy skills to ensure that nutrition remained a priority discipline in the prestigious Department of Medicine at the Groote Schuur Hospital (home of the world’s first heart transplant). Despite being placed in a largely clinically focused department, I developed a passion for public health, and focused on preventive, rather than curative, approaches to improving health.

Another major challenge was relocation to a new continent in 2006. This meant that I had to re-invent my career, including re-taking dietetics exams to become accredited in Australia (15 years after graduating) and building new collaborations. However, the move has provided further exciting opportunities, such as working on food security with fisheries colleagues in the Pacific region, and partnering with fruit farmers and agriculturalists to conduct trials on the impact of cherries and plums on cognitive function in people with dementia.

My interest in ageing has continued – nowadays I advocate for early nutrition screening in older people, to address health problems before they spiral out of control, and engage with Meals on Wheels services to improve home meal delivery.

I remain committed to researching the impact of diet on blood pressure, and am currently evaluating the effectiveness of the legislation through measurement of 24 hour urinary sodium excretion, both pre and post introduction of legislation – a natural experiment!

Karen relocated to Australia with her family in December 2006

  • What advice would you give your younger self?

    To be more confident about my academic ability and not self-doubt as much.

  • Highlight your most significant research contributions and publications (3-5) – if relevant to you.
  1. Ndanuko R, Tapsell, Charlton KE, Neale E, Batterham M. Dietary patterns and blood pressure in adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Adv in Nutr. 2016; 15;7(1):76-89. doi: 10.3945/an.115.009753.
  2. Charlton KE. Food security, food systems and food sovereignty in the 21st century: A new paradigm required to meet Sustainable Development Goals.Nutr & Diet 2016; 2016; 73: 3–12.
  3. Charlton KE, Steyn K, Levitt NS, Peer N,  Jonathan D, Gogela  T, Rossouw K, Gwebushe N, Lombard CJ. A food-based dietary strategy lowers blood pressure in a low socio-economic setting: a randomised study in South Africa. Public Health Nutrition. 2008 Dec;11(12):1397-406.
  4. Charlton KE, Steyn K, Levitt NS, Zulu JV, Jonathan D, Veldman FJ, Nel JH. Diet and blood pressure in South Africa: the intake of foods containing sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium in three ethnic groups. Nutrition 2005; 21 (1): 39 – 50.
  5. Charlton KE, MacGregor E, Vorster N, Levitt NS, Steyn K. Partial replacement of NaCl can be achieved with K, Mg and Ca salts in brown bread. Int J Food Science & Nutrition 2007; 58(7): 508-521.

  • Have you had any significant career mentors? If yes, please provide further details.

My mentors are all dynamic women academics, for whom I have the utmost respect because of their impeccable ethical standards. They have encouraged me at various stages of my career, and provided excellent role models in terms of aiming for excellence in research and teaching, despite adversity (and often lack of funding). Importantly, each of them has taught me how dogged determination and persistence is essential to get the job done.

  • Professor Krisela Steyn, Department of Medicine, University of Cape Town, South Africa (retired 30/03/2016).
  • Professor Monica Ferreira, Honorary Director: The Albertina and Walter Sisulu Institute of Ageing in Africa and Immediate Past President: International Longevity Centre Global Alliance (retired 31/12/2015).
  • Professor Naomi Levitt, Head: Division of Diabetes and Endocrinology, Department of Medicine, University of Cape Town and Director: Chronic Diseases Initiative for Africa.
  • Professor Linda Tapsell, School of Medicine, University of Wollongong.

From left to right: PhD supervisors Professors Krisela Steyn and Dinky Levitt, with Karen Charlton


  • How can we support the next generation of women scientists?

We need to encourage each other, celebrate our successes and share ideas. We also need to include early career researchers on projects and mentor them to become confident researchers.